by Carrie Baatz
“Everyone has an internal guide. If they follow it, it works.” Dr. Patricia Yeager likes to say that we choose our lives; we have a choice about how we will respond to all the people, events, opportunities and barriers that life presents us with.
As Chief Executive Officer at The Independence Center (The IC), Patricia uses her intuition to lead herself and her staff. She sees her role as an orchestra conductor, keeping the staff, volunteers, consumers and board all playing the same music. It’s not her music, she says. She creates a shared vision with input from her staff, consumers, and board members. “My favorite part of the job is getting people to talk about what they want to see happen. We create the score together.”
When she has succeeded, everyone knows their role and musical line, and they have the tools they need to play that score. Every line and stanza is honed and driven toward a single direction.
“I’m not exactly in charge of everything,” she says. Being an effective leader means gaining buy-in from the people you are working with, a skill Patricia credits to her father’s influence.
When she was growing up, her parents owned a grocery store, and one day, she heard her father talking to one of the boys who was stocking the shelves. He asked the boy what he thought of the layout and how he would arrange it. She later said to her father, “Why don’t you just do it yourself, or tell him how to do it?” Her father answered, “If people can’t contribute, then they don’t have buy in, and their work may not accomplish the goal.” That has stuck with her throughout her life.
Patricia’s passion to empower people with disabilities comes from her experience that barriers can be our teachers. “When I was a kid, I was not empowered at all.” Patricia could not hear well until she was 5 years old, when she received hearing aids. To learn to communicate, she sharpened her listening skills. “I had to watch people and listen to their voice tone, in order to figure out what was going on.”
In her family, the culture reinforced the message: You can’t speak up. While growing up, Patricia was discouraged from speaking her mind or talking too much about personal things. “My mother directed everything. She had long and deeply held rules of how life should be.”
If we look at our barriers a certain way, they may offer us something valuable. “I often think the purpose of having a hearing disability was to get me to listen in a different way.” To this day, Patricia relies on the active listening skills she developed as a child; reading people’s lips as well as expressions and nonverbal cues.
Growing up at home, Patricia found her voice by getting around barriers to expressing herself. “I learned to say things to my mother in such a way that she wouldn’t get mad. I had to think about where she was emotionally, and work my way around that.”
Overtime, her strategy grew into a knack for telling people things that they don’t want to hear. For example, when she gives her staff feedback, instead of labeling an idea or behavior “bad,” Patricia will say “that doesn’t work for me.” A simple change in wording brings the conversation to a place where things can be looked at more objectively.
Throughout her life, Patricia has been a catalyst for changes in the way society treats people with disabilities. She has moved across the country and changed jobs every 5-8 years, in each place discarding things that no longer worked and trying on new things. “You get to reinvent yourself every place you go.”
Patricia began her career as a counselor, and she was given the framework that we all construct our realities with stories that we tell ourselves. “That informed my management,” she says. “It gives me a deep respect for what is going on in another person’s head.”
Ultimately, Patricia’s heart is drawn to impacting big systems. During the 1980’s, Mayor Peña of Denver appointed Patricia to be the Director of the Commission on People with Disabilities. “I loved that role, because I was able to make a lot of tweaks here and there that made a big difference.”
Mayor Peña led the effort to build Denver International Airport (DIA). When construction plans for the airport were underway, Patricia used her influence to plant a seed. She advised the Director of Aviation that the RFP should make it a requirement for applicants to have a consultant on disability access. They did that, and they also surveyed the public to gain input on what people with disabilities wanted to see for the airport. The accessible features that we see at DIA today are the result.
“The best part was that I didn’t do it all. I was able to get people to think differently about disability access and its importance at the airport.”
An Evolution in Healthcare Access
At The Independence Center, Patricia is conducting a musical score that centers around making healthcare accessible for people with disabilities. Our vision is to become a national model of how Centers for Independent Living (CILs) can partner with the medical industry to improve healthcare for people with disabilities.
Right now, people with disabilities don’t have access to primary health care. People who use wheelchairs can go for many years without receiving medical or dental exams, because exam tables are not accessible. After spending years laying the groundwork and advocating for medical offices to become accessible in Colorado, The IC is getting ready to launch a new Hospital Transition to Home Division and is working on developing an all-inclusive healthcare program for younger people with disabilities. In both programs, The IC is partnering with medical providers to give people with disabilities access to healthcare with community support, so they don’t have to be stuck in hospitals and nursing homes.
To set a course and follow it is a journey of growth. When a vision is born, it’s just an idea. If you tend to it and follow it long enough into the unknown, the idea becomes real and begins to take on a life of its own. To see it through requires a lot of perseverance. As the vision evolves, you find yourself growing along with it.
For Patricia, life is about growing, and influencing the larger evolution is fun. “One by one, we’re getting people with disabilities into the community to explore all sorts of opportunities for living.”